Synapse

Synapse

a short story by Bill Ectric

The two medics had to shield their eyes from the glaring light when they looked up at me. Wishing to avert the helicopter searchlight away from the them, my hands fumbled for the navigation stick in the pitch-dark cockpit. The medics bravely crouched over an injured body on the ground, trying to do their job, even as I nose-dived toward them against my will. I blinked and looked away. Then the treetops lit up and I was sailing upwards, toward the woods.

I remember bright green pine needles in the intense light, backed by jet-blackness. The pine needles hissed and shriveled from the heat as I swooped up through a cloud of steam and emerged to see stars and a silver crescent moon. The moon crescent turned sideways and shot upward, but it was really me turning sideways and falling. The grass lit up and I felt the hard, hard ground jarring me unconscious.

I thought I saw the medics bending over me.

I woke up in a hospital bed. No broken bones, but feeling bruised all over, with some bandages on my arms and head.

“Out of body experiences,” said Dr. Gray. “I’ve had people tell me they saw themselves laying on the operating room table.”

He pointed to the side of his head with the stem of his unlit pipe and said, “The mind is remarkable.”

Dr. Gray put the pipe back in his mouth long enough to scribble something on a clipboard.

“Your pipe isn’t lit,” I said.

“Helps me to not smoke,” he answered.

“If I wasn’t the pilot, who was?” I asked.

“There’s a good chance your memory will return, Lieutenant Dassett,” the doctor assured me. “I told the legal team they will have to wait before asking you any more questions. They haven’t accused you of killing the two medics. They just want to find out what happened.”

“I want to find out what happened!” I moaned.

“Well,” said Dr. Gray, “You obviously weren’t flying the helicopter, because it was nowhere to be found. You either jumped or fell out of the cockpit before the pilot flew away.”

“How long before I can get out of here?” I asked.

Dr. Gray said, “Your orders are to not talk about this to anyone. For security reasons. And even if you start feeling better, don’t be too anxious to leave. You are under orders not to leave the hospital.”

“Doctor’s orders?” I asked.

Dr. Gray thought for a moment before removing the unlit pipe from his mouth again.

“Yes,” he said. “And Captain’s orders as well.”

I rested my head back on the pillow, looked around the room, and closed my eyes.

Later, having no TV in my room to distract me, I thought back to the day I first volunteered for the experiment. I remembered the day I met the two researchers, Bob Vereen and Alice Smith. They were not in the military, but they had a military contract and worked in a lab on the base. Their laboratory building was only a short walk from the hospital where I was now a patient.
I remembered the three of us sitting casually in Dr. Bob Vereen’s office. Bob, in his mid-thirties, wore his usual short sleeve dress shirt and tie, his stomach hanging slightly over his belt. He was always pulling up his slacks because they inched down under his gut when he tried to hold it in. He liked to slip off his brown loafers when relaxing with his feet up on the desk. The other researcher was Dr. Alice Smith. Attractive, nice, younger and more physically fit than Bob, but more formal and professional, Alice always wore a white lab coat.

Bob had once remarked to me, “If you think she looks good in that lab coat, you should see her in a bathing suit.”

“I bet so,” I laughed, “Is she married or what?”

“No,” said Doctor Bob. “She’s single. Don’t tell her we talked about her. She’s still friends with my ex-wife.”

The three of us sat in Bob’s office, Bob and I drinking coffee, Alice drinking bottled water.

“Well, what kind of guinea pig am I going to be?” I asked them. “You’re not going to dose me with LSD and watch me wig out, are you?”

Bob laughed, “No, sorry. You wish.”

Alice said, “We’re working on ways to help people who are paralyzed, Lieutenant Dassett. Mostly war casualties. You fit the criteria because of your left hand. What do you hope to get out of this?”

I looked at my stiff hand and said, “I want to fly again.”

Bob said, “You were a helicopter pilot, I understand.”

“I was, until I was grounded. I mean, I think I can fly with one good hand but regulations say otherwise.

Doctor Bob pulled something out of his desk drawer and chuckled, “Check out what I made.”

It looked like a disposable camera that Bob had taken apart and lashed back together with black electrical tape, with two big silver nail heads sticking out of the top.

Bob said to me, “Alright, test subject. Let me test this on you.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Bob,” said Alice. “Don’t listen to him, Lieutenant. It’s one of his home-made toys.”

“Is that a Taser?” I asked.

“Sure is,” said Bob. “Made it myself. This little bastard will knock you on your ass!”

I asked, “You mean a disposable camera has that much power?”

“Nah,” he said. “I kicked it up a few notches. I installed a couple of little step-up transformers. They take the juice from the battery, bat it back & forth a few thousand times and store the charge in a capacitor.”

Bob stood up and walked toward me. “When these two nail heads come in contact with you, and I push this button here…”

“Get that thing away from me,” I said, backing up.

“Come on, Dassett, there’s no permanent damage.”

I decided to stand my ground.

“I will put that thing up your ass,” I said.

Bob stopped and laughed, “Ah, man, I’m just kiddin’ with ya.”

Alice said, “It’s not funny, Bob.”

Bob pulled his belt and waistband up over his gut, sat on the front edge of his desk, and said, “I would like to try it somebody, though.”

I said, “Why don’t you try it on yourself?”

Bob chuckled.

Alice said, “Well, this isn’t a good way to start off with our volunteer. Put it away, Bob.”

“These experiments,” I asked. “Are they going to hurt?

“Not at all,” said Alice. “We’ll use a local anesthetic on your scalp, and the brain itself actually feels no pain.”

Now I’m laying in a hospital bed wondering if Doctors Bob and Alice will have to find another guinea pig. “If so,” I mused,

“maybe it’s for the best. I don’t much like smart-ass Bob.”

The next day I was able to walk out to a sunny little outdoor rest area; a patio with tables and chairs. It was still part of the hospital, so I figured it was within the limits of my orders. I sat at a round concrete table, shielded from the sun by an umbrella on a pole in the center of the table. An elderly man and woman sat at another table over on the other side of the patio, talking quietly.

I sensed someone looking at me and turned to see a short young man standing to my right. He was apparently a patient, wearing a white robe and slippers, smoking a cigarette.

“Lieutenant Dassett?” he asked meekly.

“Yep, that’s me,” I said.

“Can I sit down?”

“Be my guest.”

He sat down opposite me at the table, leaned forward, and almost whispered, “They don’t want me to talk to you but I think I should.”

I was prepared to say nothing. He might be gathering information for who-knows-what and I was under orders not to talk.

I said, “I really don’t feel like talking.”

“Look,” he said, still speaking low, “I know you didn’t steal any weapons.”

I just looked at him, wondering what he was talking about. What did he mean by “steal any weapons?”

“I’m on your side,” he said nervously.

“Well,” I finally said, “I certainly haven’t stolen anything. Are you okay? You seem kind of shaky.”

The young man took a long drag on his cigarette, held the smoke for a moment, then looked up and blew the smoke toward the umbrella. The smoke curled and floated over onto me.

I felt strange. The smoke must have triggered a flashback. The night sky. The burning pine needles. I spaced out and forgot about the kid sitting next to me. I must have been staring into space.

“Lieutenant!”

“Huh? Oh, sorry. What?”

“Are you remembering something?”

“No.”

“Look,” the kid said, “I know you didn’t burn those guys.”

“Burn?” I asked. “What?”

The young man continued, “Aren’t they charging you with stealing a helicopter and some incendiary bombs?”

I didn’t say anything but my mind was racing, trying to put this together. I had no memory of stealing anything but I remembered diving, against my will, on the medics and their patient. My curiosity struggled with my discipline. I felt like I had a right to know some things.

I asked, “Are you the guy who was lying on the ground?”

“What?” asked the young man.

“With the medics,” I said. “The medics were kneeling over someone on the ground. Was that you?”

Now it was the young man’s turn to stare. The long ash of his cigarette fell onto the table.

“There was no patient other than you,” he said. “They were kneeling over you.”

“No,” I said. “Before that. I saw them bending over someone else before I fell.”

“There was nobody else,” he said again. “Those two medics had no other patient but you.”

We looked at each other, both puzzled.

“Then who got burned?” I asked. “You said somebody was burned.”

“The two medics,” he said incredulously. “You didn’t know? They were burned to death by some kind of incendiary device. Or something.”

I was getting more worried and confused by the minute. This was a lot more serious that stealing a helicopter, an act which I was apparently a party to. I seriously wondered for a moment if I had gotten drunk out of my head again and done something terrible.

“Have they found the helicopter?” I finally asked.

“No helicopters are missing,” said the young man. “Inventory shows them all accounted for and,” he lit another cigarette, “there is no evidence that any unauthorized flight took place.”

“How do you know all this?” I asked.

“Well, I wasn’t supposed to be there that night, but…”

“Where?”

“The lab building. Where they were testing. I was down the hall using one of the computers. I wasn’t supposed to be there. I think Dr. Vereen and Dr. Smith know what happened.”

“Bob and Alice?” I pondered out loud.

I knew that behind the lab building is a lawn. We had squadron picnics out there sometimes. Beyond the lawn are some woods. Pine trees. Is that where I saw the two medics?

The young man said, “Nobody knows what I saw. I’m not even sure what I saw.”

“Who are you?” I finally asked.

“Pratt. Private Pratt, at least until I get my discharge. I’m hoping to get out of the service, be a civilian again, leave here and never come back. That’s why I don’t want any trouble.”

“Why are you here?” I asked

“To help you.”

“No, I mean, why are you in the hospital?”

“I’m in the psych ward,” he said sheepishly.

“Oh, great. Are you crazy?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so.”

Private Pratt fumbled in his robe pocket and pulled out a folded newspaper clipping.

“Here,” he said. “Take this and read it when no one is around. I’ve got to go.”

I took the paper and watched Pratt walk away.

Back in my room, I unfolded the section of newspaper. Pratt had drawn a red square around an article. With the same red marker, he had scrawled the four digit phone number to his hospital room in the margin. The article said:

Shelly Vereen, the President of Vereen Children’s Mentoring Program, was found dead in her Garden Heights home today around 9:00 am. According to police, her badly burned body was discovered in bed by her fiancé. There are some unusual circumstances surrounding Ms. Vereen’s death. According to police, only her bed and body were burned. The rest of the room was unharmed other than a window which was broken from the outside, leaving glass inside the room. An investigation is ongoing. Shelly Vereen is the ex-wife of Dr. Bob Vereen, who is scheduled to appear at a fund-raiser for medical research to help victims of paralysis. At this time, it is not known if Dr. Vereen will cancel his appearance. He could not be reached for comment.

I lay in my hospital bed and read the article twice, more slowly the second time. Why did Pratt give me this? Bob Vereen, one of the researchers of the experiment I had volunteered for, had an ex-wife who was killed in a fire.

My head hurt. I touched the top of my head and felt the bandage with a twinge of pain. Tired of my scalp sweating under the bandages, I pulled them off. Gently touching a shaved spot on top of my head, it felt like a hard baseball stitch. I looked at my fingers. No blood. Must be healing.
hen the nurse came, I hid the newspaper under my pillow. She put another bandage on my head and gave me two pills.

“This one is for pain,” she said. “And this one will help you relax so you can sleep.”

I pretended to take both pills, but really only took the one for pain. The nurse left the room.

Later that night I was restless. I got out of bed and slowly opened the door a couple of inches. I saw no one in the hall so I slipped out for a walk, avoiding the nurse’s station, which was around the corner. Two doors down, through an open door, a TV newscaster was yakking.

“Gala affair tonight…” said the newsman, “Overshadowed by tragedy. Dr. Vereen is expected to attend, saying his ex-wife would want it that way.”

I stood outside the room, where the occupant couldn’t see me, watching the television. So Dr. Bob’s big benefit was tonight and they’ve decided not to cancel it.

“Crazy,” I thought.

Should I walk out of this hospital and find civilian clothes and attend this friggin’ gala? That would be the stupid thing to do.

Except, sometimes I do stupid things. Did you know my hand isn’t really paralyzed? Yeah, I had faked them into grounding me before they found out my real secret. Sometimes I had tremors it was so bad. When I tried to stop drinking. I didn’t want to admit that. So I had this medic who owed me a favor inject Lidocaine into my left hand, with a tourniquet applied to the wrist for two minutes to keep most of the numbness in my hand. This wouldn’t fool the doctors forever, but it was a way to stall for time while I tapered off my drinking, or so I thought.

I returned to my room and paced back & forth, wanting a drink. Having not taken my sleep medication, I was restless. I decided to go to the benefit, have a few drinks, and see what Dr. Bob is up to.

I called Private Pratts’s room and he answered before the first ring ended.

“I want to get out of here,” I told him. “I don’t know how to sneak past the nurse’s station. Besides the nurses, there’s a security guard. Sometimes he walks around, sometimes he sits in the nurse’s station. But he keeps his eyes open.”

Pratt whispered on the phone, “Did they post a guard at your door?”

“No,” I said. “There’s just the regular security guard who walks around.”

“Amazing,” Pratt said. “Just the one guy?”

“Well, they think I’m doped up,” I explained. “And besides, they think I’m afraid to disobey orders not to leave.”

Pratt whispered excitedly, “I’ve got it all figured out. That guard is mainly looking for people in hospital gowns and robes.

There’s a Captain up here in the mental ward strapped to a bed in his underwear with the D.T’s. They’ve got his uniform neatly hanging in the closet. He’s not going anywhere.”

“Go on,” I said.

“I believe his uniform will fit you. The staff lets me walk around because I’ve never tried to leave, so I can bring you the uniform. We can walk right by the nurse’s station.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “They still might recognize me.”

“No,” said Pratt, whispering conspiratorially. “You walk with your head turned toward me. I’ll be on your left in my hospital gown, the nurse’s station will be over to our right. I’ll be talking to you, so you just keep looking at me and don’t say anything.

It’s just a short walk to the elevator or the stairs.”

“These elevators always take so long to come,” I protested. “They’ll say something to us.”

“Okay, listen. While you’re looking at me, I’ll say, ‘Captain, I get nervous in elevators. Can we take the stairs up to my room?’

They might wonder about us, but they won’t put it together that fast. For all they know, you’re my Squadron Captain come to visit me. They’re always telling me to go to my room before curfew, so they’ll think, ‘Okay, Pratt’s going up to his room and he’s with a Captain, so we don’t have to worry about him.’ We’ll walk through the door to the stairs. But we don’t go up. We haul ass down the stairs to the first floor. Even if the guard decides to follow us, he’ll be going up, not down, see? You can slip out and call a cab. I’ll go on back to my room.”

“Is there a hat?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah. Hat, shoes, medals, a whole Captain’s uniform!”

“You don’t want to escape, too?” I asked.

“Hell, no,” he said. “Not like that. I’m still trying for my discharge papers.”

“Well, come on, then,” I said.

“A new guard comes on duty at 7:00 PM,” he said. “I’ll be there a few minutes after that.”

The whole idea was stupid, but my curiosity, not to mention my craving for a stiff drink, overruled my good sense.

Private Pratt was at my door a few minutes later. He had a big paper bag from the hospital gift shop. Inside the bag was the uniform.

“The guard spoke to me when I walked by the station,” said Pratt. “I told him my Captain was visiting somebody down the hall and I was gonna drop in on them, too.”

We walked by the guard and nurses just as we had planned. I took a cab to a nearby bar where the owner is a friend of mine. I left the Captain’s hat and jacket in the cab and asked the driver to wait. My bar-owner friend leant me money and gave me three shots of Jack Daniels. What a guy!

I took the cab to the ritzy Hawkshore Hotel, where the upscale fund-raising affair was in full swing.

“I’m a patron,” I told the doorman, and removed my hat as I walked in wearing the Captain’s uniform.

Men in tuxedos and women in evening gowns filled the ballroom. The speeches were over by this time. Hotel staff navigated trays of hors d’oeuvres and glasses of champagne from guest to guest. I accepted a glass of champagne and walked among the crowd, looking for Alice Smith or Bob Vereen, feeling bold from the alcohol. A pianist played soft dinner music.

I finally caught sight of them. Through a set of open doors, on a balcony, Doctors Alice and Bob were talking under the night stars. For once she wasn’t wearing her lab coat. In formal attire she was elegantly good looking. They didn’t see me as I approached. I stood over to the side of the entrance.

Dr. Bob was saying, “What’s the matter? Relax!”

He was holding her arm but she jerked it briskly from his grip and looked away from him.

“Don’t put your hands on me again,” she said.

“I don’t see the big deal. Let’s enjoy the evening!” Bob said. His voice sounded a bit drunk.

Alice said, “I think we had better keep this relationship professional, Bob.”

“If that’s what you want,” Bob said sarcastically. “And after I gave you such a good evaluation!”

“You damn well better be joking,” said Alice. “And if you are, it’s not funny. Stop it!”

When she yelled ‘stop it’ I had to see what was going on. I gulped down the champagne in my glass and walked out onto the balcony.

Bob was gripping Alice’s forearms. She was struggling to pull away from him. They both looked at me.

Bob relaxed his grip on Alice and said to me, “What the hell are you doing here?”

Alice said, “Lieutenant Dassett! I thought you were in the hospital.”

I asked, “What the hell is wrong with you, Bob?”

Bob’s arms dropped to his sides.

“None of your business, asshole!” he replied. “And what are you doing in a Captain’s uniform?”

I jammed the hat back onto my head defiantly and stuck my chin out.

Alice, arms loosely crossed, was rubbing her forearms gently with her hands, where Bob had gripped her.

“I’ve got to go,” she said.

Bob started to follow her but I put my arm out in front of him. I actually wanted to go with Alice, to ask her about everything that had happened, to make some sense of the two burned medics and all the rest. But it was clear Bob would follow her, too.

As Alice walked back into the ballroom , Bob and I squared off on the balcony. We were both feeling the booze.

“You dick!” said Bob. “Get out of my way!”

“You’re the dick!” I countered.

“Oh,” he said, slurring his words, “That was a cleffer come-back.”

Bob hiked up his pants as he always does, picked up a half-full cocktail glass from the balcony railing, and quickly drank the contents of the glass. He leered at me drunkenly.

“You,” he pointed a finger at me with the hand still holding the empty glass, “Are AWOL, I suspect.”

“Don’t you worry about that, fat boy,” I said.

He shoved past me.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked.

“I’m going to catch up with Alice after I report you to security.”

“You stay away from her!” I yelled

“Don’t tell me what to do, Lieutenant. I can go anywhere I want.” He brought his drunken sneer close to my face, and said in a low, twisted voice, “I can go places nobody else can go. I’m an incubus.”

“What?” I asked.

“You are an incubus, too, Lieutenant Dassett. A stupid one. No, worse than that! You are an angel of death! Security!”

He raised the hand holding the glass and motioned for someone.

“Security!”

A tall, fit man in a dark suit with an earpiece quickly approached. I didn’t know if he was military, secret service, or hotel security, but I knew Bob was going to turn me in for leaving the hospital against orders and impersonating a Captain. I grabbed Bob by the lapels of his tuxedo and shoved him at the security man as hard as I could.

As he stumbled against the tall man, Bob leaned forward and I saw something strange on the top of his head. Strands of his combed-over hair fell loosely out of place, revealing a small raised implant in his scalp.

I froze, trying to recapture a vague memory.

I took off my hat and felt the top of my own head, where a strip of white tape held a piece of gauze in place. I pulled off the gauze and felt again. Right in the middle of the stitches on top of my head was a small dimple in the skin. Something had been removed and stitched up.

The security guy must have seen the look on my face because he just stood there for a moment, wondering what the hell was wrong. Dr. Bob was back on his feet, reaching into his jacket pocket.

“I’m telling you,” Bob yelled as he pulled the Taser from his pocket, “This man should be placed under arrest!”

Bob rammed his homemade Taser against my chest.

Spasms of pain, searing high voltage, like angry fire ants, made me jerk involuntarily. But with the shock came the flowing restoration of my memory. I knew the truth even as I slumped onto the floor and lost consciousness.

In my dream, I was back in the laboratory, the night the medics were killed. Bob and Alice were prepping me for the test.

“That didn’t hurt much, did it,” Alice Smith had said, as the pulled the syringe needle out of my scalp.

Feeling comfortable in a kind of dentist’s chair, I said, “No. You’re pretty good at that, I’m happy to say. Now what?”

“Well,” said Alice, “As you see on this chart, information travels in the brain from one neuron to the other.”

The chart showed a diagram of the brain, and inside the brain were a bunch of dots. Some of the dots were connected by little lightning bolt symbols.

“These dots represent neurons,” Alice said, “And information is carried from one dot to the other by synapses. Most brain synapses are chemical, but a small percent of them are electrical.”

“I’ve got electricity in my brain?” I asked.

“Everyone does,” she said. “Very low voltage. That’s why, in order for a brain synapse to have any effect on an outside object, like an artificial limb, we have to amplify the electrical charge many times over, using capacitors and step-up transformers.”

They had implanted a little plug-in socket in the top of my head, where they could attach a wire, which would make contact with the synapses in my brain, and carry them to an amplifying device. I stayed awake through it all, until something went wrong. I remember a big ball of lightning crackling as it rose to the ceiling and caught the room on fire. I remember Alice looking down at me.

“He’s not breathing, Bob,” she had said. “I don’t think his heart is beating!”

Bob had called in the two medics to resuscitate me. The medics carried me outside because of the fire in the room. Bob had a fire extinguisher, blowing white foam all over the place.

Outside, looking down, I saw myself on the ground with the medics bending over me. The medics looked up and saw the same big ball of electricity that had started the fire inside. It had crashed through a window and was now diving on them.

There was no helicopter. That was my body on the ground and my highly amplified brain plasma pulsating overhead. I didn’t want to dive on them. I veered off, into the pine trees, my mutant synapse showering a trail of sparks, then upward, and vanished in a cloud of acrid smoke, like a burned out sun.

But I had pulled back too late to save the medics. Their heads and upper bodies were fatally burned. I had only succeeded in saving myself.

I think I screamed in my sleep.

“Lieutenant Dasset.”

Eyes closed. I hear a familiar whisper.

“Lieutenant Dassett.”

I opened my eyes and there was Private Pratt, standing near me, whispering. I couldn’t move my arms and legs. I was strapped to a hospital bed. I looked at Pratt.

“How do you feel, Lieutenant?”

“How is it,” I asked, “that you can walk around this hospital anywhere you want, but they tie me down at the drop of a hat?”

“You’re up here in the psych ward now,” he said. “With me. They don’t know that I know you. I can’t talk long, they’ll be back soon.”

“What’s an incubus?” I asked.

“An incubus?”

“Bob Vereen said he was an incubus.”

“It’s an old superstition,” Pratt said. “Like goblins and ghosts.”

“Why would he say that?”

Pratt said, “An incubus is like an evil spirit that floats into a woman’s bedroom at night to, you know, have sex with her. There’s the succubus, which is female, and the incubus, which is male.”

“Shelly Vereen’s window was broken when she was burned to death in her bed,” I said, alarmed.

“Yeah,” said Pratt.

“Alice Smith is in trouble,” I said, struggling at the straps that held me. “What day is it?”

“Not so loud,” whispered Private Pratt. “What’s the matter?”

“Vereen’s going to kill Alice Smith if he hasn’t already! God! Get these straps off me! Come on, get ‘em off!”

“I can’t. This time they have a military guard posted outside the door. What do you mean, ‘kill Alice Smith?’ What…”

“He’ll burn her! The same way he burned his ex-wife! What day is it?” I demanded.

“It’s only the day after you snuck out. Calm down,” Pratt said. “They brought you back in here last night.”

I tried to lower my voice and regain my calm.

“Pratt, listen to me. You’re the one that brought me the newspaper article. You must know something. Put it together, for God’s sake!”

“Did Dr. Vereen burn those two medics?” asked Pratt.

“No, no, I…I…I didn’t mean to hurt them… I…”

“I saw the fireball,” said Pratt. “The night it happened. It almost got you, too. The medics shielded you there on the ground.

That’s why I knew you didn’t do it. I didn’t want to get involved at first because I have problems of my own. I’m just trying to get out of the military. I don’t wanna rock the boat. So what are you saying happened?”

“Just get me loose!” I pleaded. “Jesus Christ, I don’t have time to explain the whole fucking thing!”

Pratt was backing up, getting ready to leave. The military guard, followed by a nurse and an attendant entered the room.

“What’s the problem?” asked the nurse.

“Why am I strapped down?!” I demanded. “Where’s Dr. Smith, Dr. Alice Smith, where is she?”

“You are no longer assigned to her,” the nurse said calmly.

“That doesn’t matter!” I shouted. “Where is she? Is she here today? Dr. Vereen is going to kill her!”

They looked at me like I was a raving maniac.

The nurse said, “I’m going to give you something to calm you down.”

I protested in vain as she slid the hypodermic needle into my arm. I overheard the attendant say in a low voice, “Should we reschedule the shock therapy?”

“No,” the nurse answered. “We’ll proceed.”

I remember being wheeled down the hall and into another room. Other people stood around me. They placed a rubber tooth-guard in my mouth so I wouldn’t bite my tongue or chip my teeth. I wanted to speak but only gibberish came out.

Why are they doing this? Are they trying to help me or hurt me? Did Bob Vereen order this? Do they think I’m crazy? Did they find out I’m an alcoholic? Am I really losing my mind?

Racking pain! The shock therapy was in session.

My eyes were closed and I felt relaxed. The painful shocks were fading. I could see the doctors and attendants. I could see the tops of their heads. I saw myself lying on the stretcher. I was doing it again. This time there was no fireball of lightning.

The shock treatment was opening up my own mind’s ability to travel.

I saw the window in the shock therapy room, then the window ledge, then outside. The street. Brick walls of buildings. Trees. The street below. It was a beautiful feeling. No pain. Sailing over the roads. A church steeple. A bank. Sailing past telephone poles, following telephone lines. A bird lands on top of a stop sign and my trail somehow catches the bird’s eye; it’s head flicks left to right as it watches my winding progress around the corner and further on. A bus rolls to a stop at a red light but I keep moving. Sailing.

Alice Smith lives in the sandstone brick apartments up ahead.

As I approach the apartment building, two police cars and an evidence van are parked below me. Yellow tape is blocking off the area.

I can already see the shattered window to Alice Smith’s apartment, surrounded by black soot on the tan brick.

I fly in through the window. Alice’s bedroom. One of the policemen has a camera.

Soot on the wall over the headboard where a picture hangs, glass cracked from the heat and the canvas scorched brown, picture obscured.

The bed, a sunken, smoldering pit of horror. The charred skeletal remains of Alice Smith in the sagging remains of the mattress.

I didn’t want to see any more. I tried to close my eyes but there was no shutting out the scene. Then I remembered, my eyes were already closed.

Of all things, I remembered reading something about out-of-body experiences by Carlos Castaneda. The old Indian teacher had said, “When you want to return to your body, look at your hands.” With a great effort, I opened my eyes wide. I craned my neck and head forward and saw my hands down by my sides, struggling against leather straps. I relaxed my neck, let my head drop back onto a soft pillow, and saw the white ceiling of the hospital room. I was back.

Days passed. I slept a lot. I could barely lift food to my mouth. They stuck an intravenous tube in my arm. The restraints were removed.

One day I opened my eyes to see Dr. Gray holding that empty pipe in his teeth, looking at my chart.

He removed the pipe from his mouth and said, “Remember me?”

“You’re the first doctor I spoke to after the two medics were killed,” I said.

“Well, your recent memory is okay,” he observed. “And your hand,” he remarked with a suspicious smile, “ seems a lot better.”

“Yeah,” I mumbled weakly.

Dr. Gray continued, “Do you remember me telling you that I had asked the legal team to leave you alone for a while?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, they’re back and they really want to talk to you soon. Do you feel up to it?”

My mind was racing. I had no way of knowing what influence Bob Vereen had over my treatment here, or if he was a friend of

Dr. Gray. As long as I was a patient, especially a mental patient, it seemed that Vereen had some power over my situation.

“Are the police here now?”

“No,” said Dr. Gray. “They want me to call them when you’re ready to talk to them.”

“I want to go to the police station,” I said.

Dr. Gray said, “There’s no need for that. They’re willing to come here.”

“No,” I said. “I will talk to them at the police station or not at all.”

“Well, I don’t understand, but, I’ll tell them. They can probably be here first thing in the morning to pick you up. They are going to want to escort you there, of course.”

“Sure,” I said. “That’s fine.”

Alone in my room that night, I mulled over the situation. Bob Vereen probably thought nobody would believe me about any of this. I’m in the crazy ward, after all.

On the other hand, why would he take the chance? I could lead the authorities to his brain synapse amplifying apparatus if they did listen to me. I didn’t think Dr. Bob wanted me to make it to the police station tomorrow. I was sure he could check on me anytime and find out I was going to the police. I was convinced that if I waited until morning, Bob would come for me this night.

I did the old trick, pillows-under-the-sheets, to make it look like I was in bed asleep. First I sat in the corner of the room and waited. Then I thought of the whole room being lit up by one of Bob’s giant, bloated brain sparks, so I hid in the bathroom with the light out. I waited.

Just after midnight, I heard the squeaking, squeegee sound of glass under pressure, just before the windowpane shattered from the heat. The loud, harsh pop and hum of electricity entered the room. A rectangle of bright of light framed the bathroom door.

The guard outside my room heard the noise, opened the door, and looked in.

He said, “Holy shit! Get a fire extinguisher!”

The regular night security guard said, “Here! What’s going on?”

I barely opened the bathroom door and peeked out. One guard was spraying CO2 from the fire extinguisher all over the flaming bed while the other guard looked on. They both had their backs to me.

One guard shouted, “Lieutenant Dasset!”

The other guard asked, “Is he there? Is that him in bed?”

But Bob had failed at burning me to death in bed.

I bolted out of the bathroom, behind the two guards, out the door into the hallway, in pajamas and bare feet. I sprinted past the nurse’s station, into the stairwell, and barreled down the steps, three at a time. I fell once, rolled down a few stairs, jumped up, and kept running. Down to the first floor and out the door.

I ran along the sidewalk, around the corner of the hospital, and toward the lab building.

The front door to the lab building was locked. The side door was also locked. I picked up a trash can and hurled it through a closed window. Quickly chipping away the jagged shards of glass with the trash can lid, I climbed into the lab building.
Looking around the dark room, I wondered if Bob had heard the breaking glass. Was he still weak or unconscious from the effects of sending out his murderous brain synapse? If I could find him like that, it would be like finding Dracula asleep in his coffin. I walked across the room and found a door that led into the hallway.

As soon had I entered the hallway I heard a noise behind me. Dr. Bob, fully conscious, lunged at me with the Taser.

My anger boiled. I grabbed Bob’s throat with both hands, but his Taser sent spasms of pain into my stomach, wrenching my gut tight from the high voltage. My vision went blurred and then dark.

All I wanted was escape. How could all this have happened? Why? Not so long ago, everything was good. The spring and summer were so nice here. I could see the water fountain in the middle of the courtyard. I floated over the fountain, over tops of buildings, a basketball court. Down there is a young couple sitting together on a bench. Now I see grass and trees below me. There’s the tarmac. Helicopters and airplanes sitting on the tarmac. Soon I’ll be sailing over the runway.

Runway?

“Oh, right,” I thought. “This is a military base. These aircraft are off limits. What am I doing here? I need to go back. How do I get back? Close my eyes? No, open eyes. Look at hands. Look at my hands.”

My eyes opened to the jarring scene of both my hands locked tightly on Dr. Bob Vereen’s throat. His face was blue. His body hung heavy in my hands. During the muscle contractions and paralysis of electrocution by the Taser, I had involuntarily choked him to death.

It took an effort to open my fingers and let the body drop to the floor. I stood there, not knowing what to do.

“Lieutenant Dassett!” came a familiar whisper.

“Pratt!”

“Lieutenant! I got my discharge! You need a ride out of here?”

Pratt drove off the base through the front gate with me hiding in the trunk.

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The Beauty of Dark Writing

Fantasia_Disney (2)

Author John Shirley has written an essay on why he likes “dark” literature – those genres that deal with the supernatural, horror, and so forth. The essay appears on Literati Literature Lovers. Here’s an excerpt:

It may be that the appeal of dark beauty is that it bridges these fearful gaps in existence: it brings symmetry to the asymmetrical; it brings liveliness to the symbols of death. In some paradoxical way it shows us how death isn’t the end. The scent of leaves decaying is not unpleasant—yet it’s a smell of decomposition. The glow from a jack-o-lantern is cheerful, though the carved face on the pumpkin may leer wickedly. A moonlit landscape seems to brood, to hint of dark secrets—yet it’s a glorious sight. What’s prettier, really, than an old graveyard with ornate headstones and mossy tombs? We weep at a funeral but we’re celebrating someone’s life.

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Creature Feature

Ben Chapman as The Creature with Julie Adams

Ben Chapman as The Creature with Julie Adams

Ben Chapman wore the gill-man suit in Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) for all of the scenes filmed on land, while Ricou Browning portrayed the Creature in all the underwater scenes. In fact, Ricou Browning did the underwater scenes for all three Creature movies. In Revenge of the Creature (1955), Tom Hennesy played the Creature on land. Finally, in The Creature Walks (1956), Don Megowen was the creature on land.

Here’s a web site dedicated to Ben Chapman, with a tribute by Julie Adams, who starred in the original 1954 classic along with Richard Carlson.  Adams begins the tribute with:

Hard to believe that on February 21st, 2013, Ben Chapman will have been gone for five years. Ben was a kind and generous man, with whom I had the good fortune to work with on Creature from the Black Lagoon. I remember the first time I saw him in the Creature costume, I was terrified. But as the production wore on I gradually became used to him as the Gill Man. By the middle of the production I would greet him in the morning with a friendly pat on his rubber cheek and say, “Good Morning, Beastie.” Working on the film together became part of a lifelong friendship that many years later took us to horror conventions all over the country: Chiller in New Jersey, Monster Bash in Pittsburgh, Monster Mania in Philadelphia, too many to remember.

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Forrest Aguirre’s Fantastic Fugue – Interview by Bill Ectric

Forrest_Aguirre_Collage

Forrest Aguirre is an American fantasy and horror author, and winner of the 2003 World Fantasy Award for his editing work on Leviathan 3. His fiction has been published in numerous genre periodicals and in the collection Fugue XXIX. His first novel is Swans Over the Moon. He often writes about Africa, and is deeply interested in the continent.

Zoran Zivkovic, the eminent  writer, researcher and translator of classic American fantastic fiction into Serbo-Croation, describes the stories of Forrest Aguirre as “a set of portals that lead to the very quintessence of the ancient and noble art of the fantastic” and “the contemporary prose equivalent of the wildly imaginative paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.”

I concur heartily with Mr. Zivkovic. Here is the conversation I had with Mr. Aguirre via the Internet.

Bill Ectric:  Occult practitioner Ogden Covent is a fictional character in one of the stories in Fugue XXIX, but you make him seem more real by first writing about Aleister Crowley. I created a character named Olsen Archer in my novel, Tamper, and hopefully made him seem more real by portraying him as a colleague of Richard Shaver. Why do you think we like to write “histories” of fictional characters?

Forrest Aguirre: The master of the fictional history is Jorge Luis Borges, an author whose work I love to read. My academic background is in history, so that, of course, informs my writing quite a bit. The benefit of using a historical figure as an associate of your fictional character is twofold: First, many readers will have some familiarity with the historical figure that can be used to quickly immerse them into the setting. Second, and paradoxically, if the readers are familiar with the historical character, this allows the writer to play off of the readers’ preconceived notions in ways that contradict the associations the reader has formed in the past. This ploy simultaneously serves to associate and dissociate the reader from their preconceptions. Each of those results can be used to help the reader suspend disbelief, though they can also backfire if they’re either under-emphasized or over-emphasized. On one hand, you don’t want a historical figure to hijack your story and, on the other, you don’t want to contradict the historical figure to the point that it feels like a mockery (unless that’s your intent). It’s a bit of a tight-rope!

BE: You write about Ogden Covent almost as though you are writing an essay. Would you consider that to be metafiction?

FA: I enjoy work that spits in the face of genre conventions. I don’t know if “Mystic Flower” is necessarily metafictional, though it has the feel of a metafictional work. Much of my fiction is constructed as a series of documents that hint and infer, rather than construct a direct narrative stream. I’ve been accused of being light on plot in my short work, and I’m guilty as charged. My longer work is more plot heavy, but in short fiction, I like to strip down plot and let the reader fill in the gaps with their own imagination. Again, this goes back to my training as a historian. One goes to the primary documentation and works their way toward the history. It’s almost never as straightforward as some historians would have you believe. It’s a bit like building a court case, I suppose: you present evidence, paint the setting, and give meaningful character sketches. You emphasize some evidence and de-emphasize other parts, and push the jury to your desired decision. The reader has the final say in whether or not you”succeed,” since reading is a very individual experience, informed by the reader’s knowledge, training, and experiences.

 BE: Who are some of your writing influences?

FA: I’ve been told I write like “Poe on acid.”  Shakespeare is a big influence, as is H.P. Lovecraft. Thomas Ligotti is another writer whose style has had a heavy influence on my own. The Old Testament and Dante always seem to be floating around in the back of my head when I’m writing shorter work, as well. I love Italo Calvino’s work and can’t recommend it strongly enough. Rikki Ducornet and Brian Evenson are contemporary authors whose writing I greatly enjoy (and who are just great people, to boot). I read broadly, and I find inspiration in many writer’s works. If you go to Goodreads (or my blog) and look at my reviews, that might give you a good idea of writers whose work I like.

BE: When Trent Walters interviewed you for the SF Site, you said your first drafts are always handwritten. Jeff Vandermeer told me he does that as well. Is there a particular reason for that? Do you use a pen or pencil?

FA: I always use a pen. Which pen I use depends on the relative “speed” of the scene. I have a big, bulky glass pen (made by a glass-blowing stoner friend of mine) that I use when I need to write slowly. This one is particularly good for sections of dialogue where characters might be speaking particularly carefully, either to get a point across exactly or to guard against saying the wrong thing. Mostly, I use one of two wood pens. I like the heft in my hand, and I use heavier-gauge cartridges so that the ink flows quickly. Not the most economical of solutions, but it helps when I’m writing an action sequence or when I need to get through some quick, snappy dialogue. I’m a kinesthetic learner, primarily, so the physical act of writing helps me to process in a way that tapping a keyboard can’t. I like to draw (though I’m not particularly good at it), and writing and drawing have the same sort of “flow” from the hand, wrist, and arm. Handwriting is a sort of trigger, I suppose, for my creativity. Typing is for editing and revising, not for writing. Writing is immersive and involves the body, as well as the mind. Editing is best done clinically, from a distance. Keyboards are good for distancing one from the imagination. Your mileage may vary!

BE: What do you think of the cut-up writing technique as used on occasion by William S. Burroughs?

FA: I like it, as well as several techniques that the surrealists and dadaists championed, as writing exercises to get the imagination flowing. I don’t know that I could ever construct an entire piece of fiction using the technique, but it does get the brain charged up and knocked around a bit, which helps with creativity.

BE: Have you read any Thomas Pynchon?

FA: Mason & Dixon is one of my favorite books. I don’t know exactly why – so many things happen in that book and the characters are all so wacky and loveable that it’s hard to pin down the reasons for my love of it. I’ve never really analyzed it closely. Maybe that’s why I liked Mason & Dixon so much. It was just so much fun that I didn’t feel compelled to criticize it.

BE: In your story Over Alsace (Fugue XXIX, page 142), there is a passage I especially like. It reminds me of something Thomas Pynchon might write. I understand that the story is about a WWI flyer over France, but I have some questions. There are elements within the passage that give me impressions, which I can’t quite put into words. First, I’ll reprint the passage:

A blunderbuss shivered as Baelphoegele, the destroying angel-
Cassandra-
Shrack
Shrack
Shracked the ramrod down the weapon’s chrome throat. It tried in vain to regurgitate beryl, onyx, ruby, gold:
The Grapeshot of Mammon;
And awaited the leveling of the weapon, the trigger pull, the shattering echo that heralds the final departure of its victim into the world of the dead.
In the distance, propellers sliced into the world’s skin, wings plowed a field, flames consumed the earth-bound aircraft. Helmuth continued to fall.
Baelphoegele’s – Cassandra’s – smile disappeared behind a puff of smoke as the thunderstick responded in discharge to celestial command, a crusader-king’s ransom of flechette finding its mark on The
Fatherland’s Iron Cross.
Gott
 
BE: Is Baelphoegele a real name for something? It makes me think of Baael, or Bael, the prince of hell, and also the baphomet, but I couldn’t find the actual term Baelphoegele anywhere. 

FA: I made up Baelphoegele. You’ve caught the essence of what I was looking for – something easily identifiable as devilish and evil. It might be a real name, but I’m no scholar of Middle-Eastern languages. Hopefully it’s not an Aramaic non-sequitur! Then again, that might be kind of fun: “Prince of hellish breakfast sausages” or something like that.

BE: Are you saying Baelphoegele is Cassandra?

FA: That’s up to the reader. Is Baelphoegele Cassandra, or merely Helmuth’s impressions of Cassandra? Or is it the set of circumstances that broke his heart? It’s not my call . . . the reader decides this.

BE: I like the reference to beryl, onyx, ruby, and gold. These stones are mentioned early in the book of Genesis, which I always felt was odd, because, why, in the middle of describing Eden and the 4 rivers, did someone deem it important to throw in a fact about precious stones in the area? And these jewels seem to be connected to another word your story: mammon. Then I thought about the oil spattering in the airplane, and war being waged for oil and gold.

FA: I like contrast. The idea of a man being killed by a devil (who might have been disguised as an angel?) with some of the most precious materials known, felt like a really striking image when it first popped into my head. Actually, the term “Grapeshot of Mammon” occurred to me first. I thought “what would Grapeshot of Mammon” be made of? So I fell back on Genesis (I believe these are also in the Revelation of John, but I’d have to look it up) for my source material. I honestly hadn’t thought about the oil and gold – that’s a nice inference. There was no auctorial intent there. Well done, reader!

BE: Is the pilot thinking about Cassandra as he died, and we are seeing an impressionistic reverie in his mind?

FA: I had hoped to tell the story of two planes of reality intersecting, one physical, one spiritual. Whether the spiritual plane is only in the pilot’s head or is some sort of superimposed reality is up to the reader. I’m not going to impose on the reader’s imagination! I like stories that leave the answers to these sort of questions up to the audience, answers that can change over time and after the reader has had more life experience. Some of my favorite stories and books are those that grow with you and that cause growth within you.

BE: Do you think allusions to the Bible will slowly lose their meaning if fewer people are taught the Bible as children? For example, Faulkner’s novel Absolom, Absolom! was about a son rebelling against his father, and if my parents are any indication, there was a time when this allusion to the Absolom of the Old Testament was a powerful tool, connecting to their inner sense of awe. Or, when H. P. Lovecraft called something an “abomination,” back in the day, maybe this spoke to deeply rooted transcendental fears in some readers. Or maybe I’m wrong about less people being taught the Bible. I don’t have statistics.

FA: The reading of the Bible is now becoming an academic challenge, more than anything. When children are taught the Bible now, it’s usually in a watered-down, child-friendly abridgment. So there seems to be a sort of split developing between academic readers of the Bible, on one hand, and those who know its basic stories, but don’t have an appreciation for the finer points of the writing itself, on the other.

Knowledge of the Bible and its stories has become almost a barrier between intellectual classes, if you will. The intellectually “rich” use it for references that carry a great deal of power for those who have read the stories as translated in the King James or other, older versions, usually with little regard to the spiritual teachings it espouses; the intellectually “poor” use it for the moral teachings of the stories, with little appreciation for its inherent beauty as a work of art – in some ways it’s become almost kitsch, a series of cheap, popular morality plays. Whether or not you agree with the precepts or assumptions of the Bible, it is a beautiful piece of literature. I’m guessing that the Bible will never again be regarded as highly as it has in the past as both a work of beauty and as a utilitarian document.

Your reference to Absalom is particularly poignant. I remember reading the story of David and Absalom around the time that my oldest son was going through some difficulties as a teenager. I read that story and actually cried thinking about the tragedy of David weeping aloud when he heard that his rebellious son had been killed by the king’s servant, Joab: “Oh my son, Absalom, my son, my son, Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” That’s powerful stuff, emotionally moving. The Bible is full of that sort of thing. Writers, no matter what their religious views, would do well to read through it and learn something from it, not only about potential allusions, but about the portrayal of the human condition. There’s writer’s gold in there! The same can be said for other religious texts, The Quran, the Vedic texts, and so forth.

Though religion itself is on the wane, interest in our cultural heritage is on the rise. So, I don’t know, maybe the Bible and other religious texts will persevere, if not for their moral teachings, then as ancestral stories with wide appeal.

BE: What about your novella? What ebooks do you have available through Smashwords?

FA: I’ve chosen to publish a few of my novellas through Smashwords because it’s really difficult to sell novellas unless your name rhymes with “Reavin’ Ring”. I love the novella form. Love to read it, love to write it. So Smashwords has the following bastard-children:

Archangel Morpheus – I love my brother, even though he drives me crazy sometimes. I imagined what lengths one might go to in order to find a sibling who had gone missing in action. Since I’ve found that grief often expresses itself in my haunted dreams, I thought it appropriate to force the main character to travel through the land of dream, on the borderland of death, in order to find his brother. It is a quest, but an extremely surreal quest, set between World War I and World War II. It’s funny you mention William S. Burroughs. He makes a cameo in Archangel Morpheus. “How?” you ask? “He was merely a child at that time”. Yes, but this is fiction, isn’t it? And surreal fiction, at that. And if you read the novella, maybe you’ll be able to figure out just how he got there and why. But really, Burroughs only serves as a minor character in the quest, though he does aid the hero in a couple of meaningful ways.

Cloaks of Vermin and Fish – This is the first of three misadventures (the other two still to be published) of a pair of twins, both thieves living in Renaissance Venice. They are, in short, bungling idiots. One reviewer likened them to Abbott and Costello, and I suppose that’s a fair assessment. They have an entanglement with a certain fish-god worshiping cult that will be familiar to readers of early-20th-century horror literature. I had a fun time writing this novella. It was a lark, granted, and shamelessly indulgent. But, hey, it’s 99 cents – what’s not to like?

Swans Over the Moon – This was initially published in trade paperback by Wheatland Press. Since Wheatland’s indefinite hiatus, I have re-edited the text and published it as an e-book. It follows the decline and fall of the Procellarian empire, an empire on a world strangely like Earth’s own moon if it had been populated by humans with a Victorian sense of fashion and a Machiavellian sense of rulership. Most of all, though, this is a story about family, loyalty, betrayal, and the tug of public obligation versus private relationships. In essence, I took Shakespeare’s King Lear and turned it on its head, killed it, then resurrected it in a new form. This seems to be the most popular of my e-book novellas.

I also have a short collection of what I call “Object Fictions,” Fossiloctopus. There are 11 flash and very short fictions, in all, in this collection, each of them detailing or focusing on a physical object of some type. There’s the titular Fossiloctopus, bones from the Rwandan genocide, canopic jars, kaleidoscopes of Africa, a mirror surmounted with mechanical butterflies, the last key in Sodom, Nancy Davis’ bridal veil, and many other objects around which fictions have been built. There really is a little bit of something for everyone. I figured that by the time I had enough of these short object fictions to fill a book, I might be long dead, so I cheated death and published this little e-chapbook. I feel so naughty.

BE: Do people ever say to you, “Run, Forrest!”

FA: All the time.

Jeremy C. Shipp – Light, Darkness, Imagination, and Ectoplasm

Jeremy Shipp  Attic Toys

Jeremy Shipp is a writer with staying power. I’ve only read one of his novels, the surreal Vacation, but I’ve been reading collections of his short stories, which I’ve downloaded onto my Kindle iPhone app, and looking forward to more.

I only recently became aware of this 2010 interview  with Mr. Shipp by Richard Romero for the Yuma Sun:

RR: Who are your main influences and why?

JS: I fell in love with storytelling thanks to individuals such as Terry Gilliam, HG Wells, George Lucas, Jules Verne, Jim Henson, Alexandre Dumas. These days, I find myself inspired by people like Haruki Murakami, Takashi Miike, Lois Lowry, Hayao Miyazaki, Arundhati Roy, Park Chan-wook.

RR: How did you get involved with writing in the horror genre?

JS: I’ve never thought, “I think I’ll write a horror story now.” This just happens naturally. That rather long short story I wrote in 4th grade was rather dark and strange. And even when I played pretend with my brothers as a kid, our recurring characters included the grim reaper, a mummy, and other monsters.

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Read more: http://www.yumasun.com/articles/horror-65455-theme-extracted.html#ixzz2Xf3Nzzjp